success stories

Monsignor George Higgins: Labor Priest

A Success Story Par Excellence
by Jerry Filteau Catholic News Service

Only days before Msgr. Higgins took ill, the U.S. Catholic Historian, official quarterly of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society, published an issue devoted entirely to his life, thought and influence on U.S. Catholic history. It was only the fourth such Festschrift ever done by the journal and the first, it said, devoted not to a historian but to "a maker of history."

George Gilmary Higgins was born Jan. 21, 1916.

Shortly after his ordination in Chicago in 1940, Msgr. Higgins was sent to Washington to earn a doctorate in economics. He ended up spending the rest of his life there as a leading national and international figure in labor relations, social justice and interracial, ecumenical and Catholic-Jewish relations.

He was best known in the United States as a close friend of labor and a passionate advocate of workers' rights.

He served the U.S. bishops' national conference as a social action official for 36 years, 1944-80, most of that time as department director. For decades he was the author of the bishops' annual Labor Day message.

He spent the next 20 years at The Catholic University of America, as a lecturer on labor and social ethics until 1994 and as professor emeritus until 2000, when he moved to a nearby retirement home for priests.

For 56 years -- from 1945 to 2001 -- he wrote "The Yardstick," a Catholic press column syndicated by Catholic News Service. While frequently devoted to labor issues, the column also commented regularly on new papal documents and the application of church teaching to a wide range of justice and peace issues, human and civil rights, racism, anti-Semitism and other burning questions.

In "Without Fear or Favor," a 1984 biography, Gerald M. Costello wrote that Msgr. Higgins' "teachings and commentaries on the encyclicals constitute a study course in themselves, a brilliant reflection on the application of the teachings of the 20th-century popes to contemporary social problems."

He started writing about the unjust working conditions of farm laborers in 1951 and played a key role in the bishops' 1969 decision to form a special committee to mediate the bitter dispute between grape growers and the fledgling United Farm Workers union. As a consultant to the committee, in the early '70s he shuttled constantly from Washington to California, playing a central role in bringing the growers and workers to the negotiating table.

The committee's field representative, who spent countless days crisscrossing the state with Msgr. Higgins, was a young California priest named Roger Mahony, now the cardinal-archbishop of Los Angeles. Upon his death, Cardinal Mahony said, "Msgr. Higgins' legacy as the champion of workers, especially the poorest of workers, will be recorded in history as nothing but phenomenal -- and, I am certain, never to be duplicated."

UFW leader Cesar Chavez said in 1980 that no one in the country did more for farm workers than Msgr. Higgins, and Msgr. Higgins later said his involvement in the farm labor problem "has given me greater satisfaction than almost anything I have done in my 36 years at the (bishops') conference."

During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s he became known throughout the English-speaking world as one of the most knowledgeable and articulate interpreters of the council. A council "peritus," or expert adviser, he was a daily member of the U.S. bishops' press briefing team -- which reporters of all languages regarded as one of the best sources of information on the council's daily activities. When the U.S. reporters covering the council voted on a council "All-America" team, they chose him as quarterback.

He was on the drafting commission for the council's laity decree and, as a close friend and collaborator of American Jesuit theologian Father John Courtney Murray, he was deeply involved in the development of the council's Declaration on Religious Freedom.

He often referred to his work in the labor movement as simply a "ministry of presence." When he was asked in a 1994 interview to list two or three of his greatest accomplishments with labor, he said, "I tend not to think in those terms. I've always felt that my role, a limited role, was ... just to be there, to be present, to give them support."

A familiar figure at national union conventions, he said it was his policy never to turn down an invitation to a labor meeting if he was able to be there. He appeared at the picket lines of some of the bitterest labor strikes of the past half-century to deliver an invocation and offer a word of encouragement.

He was a founding member of the United Auto Workers' Public Review Board and chaired it from 1962 until 2000, when failing health made the monthly trips to Detroit too difficult.

In his final years at the bishops' conference he had the titles "secretary of research" and "secretary of special concerns" -- job descriptions he readily acknowledged as legal fictions allowing him to work on issues of his own choosing. When the conference's planning committee decided in 1978 to give him early retirement in a budget-cutting move, he accepted the decision -- but the nation's labor, Jewish and social action communities did not. The outpouring of protest that greeted the announcement led to a quick reversal, and he stayed on two more years, retiring shortly before his 65th birthday.

When the independent Polish labor union Solidarity was struggling for survival under the communist government in the early 1980s, he was a key liaison between Solidarity and U.S. unions. His travels to Poland in support of the union led to a friendship with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who became president of Poland after the collapse of communism.

His experiences in the labor movement and social action brought him in contact with many Jewish leaders, and he was a staunch advocate of better Catholic-Jewish relations long before Vatican II. He was a charter member of the official International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee formed after the council and he called the "absolutely phenomenal" advances in Catholic-Jewish relations since the council "one of the greatest joys of my life."

Vatican II's declaration on relations with non-Christian religions marked a historic turning point in Catholic views on Jews and Judaism. Msgr. Higgins was not on the drafting commission, but biographer Costello called him "an intimate participant" in its development "as a liaison between the Jewish observers at the council and the bishops and as a writer of speeches for several American bishops who supported it on the council floor."

Eugene Fisher, one of the world's leading authorities on Catholic-Jewish relations, has said that in the development of the council document, Msgr. Higgins was "a link, perhaps the most crucial link, between world Jewry and the council fathers."

Msgr. Higgins' voracious reading habits were the stuff of legend. He started the day with four newspapers and liked to devote at least three hours a day to serious reading on weekdays, much more on weekends. The great church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis described him as "the best informed priest in the United States."

Even after his eyesight began to fail because of macular degeneration, he continued to read as much as he could. But he also became a devotee of taped lectures, devouring one series after another on a wide range of scholarly topics.

In 1984 he received the highest honor of the Catholic Press Association, the St. Francis de Sales Award, for "The Yardstick." He wrote the column on a weekly basis for 47 years, changing to a biweekly schedule in 1992.

In 2000 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Last year he was given the University of Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington forced postponement of a tribute dinner in his honor that was to take place that night, co-hosted by the AFL-CIO and the bishops' conference. It was rescheduled in November, just before the bishops' annual meeting in Washington.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, then president of the bishops' conference, told the assemblage of bishops, labor leaders and friends, "If there is a more respected priest in this country than George Higgins, I have not heard of him. ... Msgr. Higgins has no peers in this country today who can match his contribution to the Catholic Church's involvement in social justice for workers."

AFL-CIO President John F. Sweeney said, "He has been an irresistible force in bringing labor and church together. ... We respect him for his strength, we revere him for his conscience, we stand in awe of his intellect and we thank him for his love."